The rural Democrats at the center of Maine’s gun debate

Gun Rights

AUGUSTA, Maine — Many rural Democratic lawmakers who opposed past gun control efforts are not yet taking sides on a new plan from Gov. Janet Mills to expand background check requirements in the wake of Maine’s deadliest mass shooting on record.

While Democrats hold an 80-to-68 advantage over Republicans in the House of Representatives and a wider 22-to-13 advantage in the Senate, past debates on guns and abortion have revealed how the majorities do not always mean easy victories. Last year, rural Democrats helped doom bills on background checks and 72-hour waiting periods.

The most progressive lawmakers in Augusta are likely to bring those measures back, and the governor seems to be building enough support to pass her narrower changes following the Oct. 25 shooting at a Lewiston bowling alley and bar that left 18 dead and 13 injured. But many of the key rural Democrats who have opposed gun control are still reluctant to weigh in, signaling a number of difficult votes ahead for those in swing districts across Maine.

“It’s too early for me to weigh in,” Rep. Ron Russell of Verona Island, one of the Democrats to oppose last year’s bills, said of Mills’ plan. “I’m trying to do the best for the district and the state and both sides of the issue — the impossible.”

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Rep. Tavis Hasenfus, D-Readfield, similarly said he is “waiting to see what we get for language on these proposals.”

Others who have voted like Hasenfus and Russell, including Reps. Jessica Fay, D-Raymond, Jim Dill, D-Old Town, Scott Landry, D-Farmington, and Allison Hepler, D-Woolwich, did not respond to repeated requests for comment on the package that Mills outlined Tuesday during her State of the State address.

It would expand background checks to advertised gun sales, elevate the crime of selling guns to prohibited persons from a misdemeanor to a felony and tweak a “yellow flag” law Mills negotiated in 2019 by letting police take people into protective custody in certain circumstances.

A statewide network of crisis receiving centers that offer care to people in mental health emergencies and a centralized violence and injury data hub are also part of the plan, which came after more than three months of closed-door discussions.

Legislative Republicans reflexively opposed it, with House Minority Leader Billy Bob Faulkingham of Winter Harbor panning the governor’s speech as “gibberish.” But gun-control advocates who want bigger changes called it a good first step, and David Trahan, the head of the gun-rights Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, praised the governor for her approach.

“You try to find consensus and ways you can build upon it,” said Trahan, who negotiated the “yellow flag” law with Mills and met with her staff since the shooting in Lewiston.

State Rep. Shelley Rudnicki, R-Fairfield, calls for the impeachment of Maine Secretary of State Shenna Bellows, Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2024, at the State House in Augusta. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

Rural lawmakers are a question mark as they await the text of the governor’s legislation and additional proposals expected from Senate leaders and House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland. Trahan said those “blue dog Democrats” are truly representing their districts.

“If you live in rural Maine, it is a different culture,” Trahan said.

An independent commission and various military-led probes are reviewing the lead-up and response to the mass shooting and missed warnings about gunman Robert Card II, a 40-year-old Army reservist from Bowdoin. The efficacy of the yellow flag law has been a large point of contention so far.

During a Thursday news conference, Senate Minority Leader Trey Stewart, R-Presque Isle, said “human error” not existing law was to blame for the missed opportunities to flag Card before the shooting. He and other members aired concerns over the proposed background check and yellow flag changes.

Sen. Matt Harrington, R-Sanford, who is also a Kennebunk police officer, alluded to Cumberland County Sheriff Kevin Joyce and other law enforcement personnel referring to the “yellow flag” law as “useless” and cumbersome, arguing that is a good thing because it shields rights.

“It should be difficult to enforce,” Harrington said.

The National Rifle Association, whose lobbyists include Harrington’s wife, Lauren LePage, also the daughter of former Gov. Paul LePage, said it has concerns about Mills’ plan but is awaiting bill text before officially sharing its stance.

There is suspicion among Republicans. Rep. Shelley Rudnicki, R-Fairfield, called Mills “a liar” for saying she wanted no changes to abortion laws during her 2022 campaign. The governor then proposed and signed a bill allowing doctors to perform abortions deemed necessary after viability. Rudnicki said she would not be surprised if Mills and Democrats went further on guns.

If they do, they will have to win over people like Rep. Bruce White, D-Waterville, who faces a primary challenger after opposing the governor’s abortion bill last year.

He sounded favorable to Mills’ plan outside the House chamber after her speech, agreeing with the governor that “law-abiding citizens have nothing to worry about” with the background check plan. He then alluded to Maine voters defeating a background check expansion in 2016.

“I would dare say if that was today, that vote might be different,” White said. “As a legislator, there are some things I change my view on down the road after you learn new info.”

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